To be Black in the Arab/Islamic world has recently become a new passion of interest, as it concerns the MENA region. A visit to Iran led Professor Mahdi Ehsaie to capture this hidden and intriguing community. In his latest book, “Afro Iran: The Unknown Minority,” the mystique of this captivating community leaves viewers wondering. Who Are the Afro Iranians, and where did they come from?
Discourse and informal conversations begin to take place. The her/history of slavery is examined, and the status of the Afro Iranian community comes to life. Vivid imagery of Black bodies provides telling stories; while disclosing the realities of an enchanting body of people. Looking through the collection, observers are presented with countless photographs of Black, Iranian men–dark-skinned in their appearance; an obvious showcase of them being of African descent. To be Black and a man. Yes. An obvious captivation! But, to be Black and a woman in Iran entails of an even more complex journey.
Who is the Afro Iranian woman? And what is her herstory? How is she depicted? Such are the questions of this mystery puzzle. The Black, feminine face of Black communities in the Arab/Islamic world is up for some intrinsic analysis.
First, how is she depicted. In examining certain pictures in “Afro Iran: The Unknown Minority,” the reality of the Black, female presence is tied to a certain colonial presence. Further examination of such photos presents how Black, Iranian women (especially, those who are dark-skinned, and reflect an African-descended presence) are disassociated from the themes of motherhood, wives, and as the birthers of their communities. Those who are presented with children are light-skinned in complexion; with cases of them seeming to have a Persian mixture.
There are very few instances of Afro Iranian women (Black in coloration) being showcased with their natural mates. On the contrary, if one were to investigate older photographs, one is more likely to see depictions of Afro Iranian men with Persian (or “white-skinned”) women. In addition to photographs (or drawings), which presents Afro Iranian women as being slaves, servants, or wet nurses for the children of their masters, one rarely finds photographs that showcase her in her own family structure; nurturing her own children, with her own mate. Images of child-bearing women, as he reproducers (and birthers) of their community remain highly invisible.
The photographs in Professor Mahdi Ehsaie’s work, and other sources, highlight an important issue, as it relates to colorism and racism against Black, female bodies within Iranian societies. Depictions of elder, Black-Iranian women and their presence is an added topic of discussion. There is one photograph, showing 4 Black-Iranian women behind a group of men musicians (3 of them who are obviously Black-Iranian men). Yet, again, the issue of her family structure; and how she is represented as the feminine face, within her own community is up for question.
Though the vigilance of Afro-Iranian women in Hollywood (models Malika and Khadija Haqq, with one who is married) would go against this traditional stereotype, such does not represent a common depiction of Black Iranian women in Iran. Based on modern and past photographs, it is evident that part of the system of slavery in Iran, was to rid of the Black, female image, as the feminine image of Afro-Iranian herstory. Replacing her with bi-racial, or white Iranian (Persian) women, as it related to mating, and companionship with Afro-Iranian men. A hierarchy regarding the context of womanhood.
More is to be investigated, and studied of the societal dynamics, and politics, of Afro-Iranian women in Iran. Until then, one can only hope that further discussions open a realm of celebration of the women, who were made invisible.